The phrase “mommy brain” had a chilling effect on my dreams of motherhood. The phrase is usually offered as a humorous apology or gesture of commiseration between moms in moments where she has dropped the ball or had a forgetful moment. To hear women describe themselves and each other as lacking, as scatter-brained, as not quite making the mark seemed to me such a negative and dismissive way to dialogue about motherhood.
Also challenging my innate desire to become a mother were the intimidating depictions of parenthood in media. Popular television shows like Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond, while truly funny and often poignant, are usually replete with harried, exhausted parents and screaming, crabby mamas.
Parenting conversations and popular media all seemed to agree: Motherhood will eat you alive! Notwithstanding my lifelong dream of having my own family, I always carried some anxiety about this change in life, which is likely why I put it off for so long – I became a mom at 41. I was concerned about how I would handle the chaos and stress, how I would stay whole.
Before I was a mom, I worked hard to cultivate a mindful way of life. I worked to include mindful habits such as morning and evening seated or walking meditations, deep breathing exercises, and positive visualizations into my daily routines. As much as I enjoyed the mental and physical health benefits of mindful living, the realities of a challenging job, and modern life often pushed these rituals off the daily agenda.
Finding Mindfulness in Motherhood
Mindful living routines were often relegated to the “I really need to get back to that…” part of my mindset. These challenges created yet another major reservation about parenting: If I was struggling to perfect a mindful life as a single person, then as a parent I would drift even further from any trace of healthy and centered living, let alone daily mindful practice. If parenting was as much of a train wreck as much of my white culture, socio-political role models, and popular media presented it, it seemed almost an impossibility that I would ever be able to thrive in the role of mom.
Once I became a mom, however, I found that while motherhood does create some sleepless nights and sitcom-worthy moments full of breastmilk-soaked shirts at doctor appointments and empty diaper bags, it also has naturally built-in moments perfect for mindful practice: being unavoidably in the moment, meditating, centering, and self-reflecting – all core strategies of mindful living.
I was delighted to discover that motherhood not only naturally created the space for daily mindful practice but deepened my overall mindful mindset.
Instead of finding myself crazed and diminished, I found myself more calm, more centered, and more at peace because of the natural cycles of pausing, connecting, and cherishing that motherhood offered. I was so happy to discover that, contrary to my worries and negative mental models, parenting and mindful living were mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.
A note on language and purpose: I identify as a cis-woman and my lens in writing this is the lens of a mother and while that is the term I will use most often, I hope that the mindfulness and parenting themes are inviting to all caretakers who have raised, will raise, or are currently raising little ones. It is important to expand positive and inviting conversations around parenting so I hope that doulas, dads, grandparents, adoptive and foster parents, and anyone else raising a little one can relate to my words.
Mindfully Approaching the Non-Negotiables of Parenting
My purpose in this writing is to provide inspiration and suggestions for how to reframe our conversations around parenting as a journey full of opportunities to practice mindfulness every day even throughout the undeniably challenging experience of parenting.
Diaper changes, feedings, and witnessing this fascinating little human grow and change so quickly can make mindful living a natural daily reality throughout the years of parenthood.
Being in the Moment
When a baby has a messy diaper, it needs to be changed. For our olfactory contentment and the baby’s comfort and health, changing a diaper cannot be added to a to-do list for another time of day that better fits your plans. When you are a changing a diaper, it is nearly impossible to not be in the moment.
I realized this during a busy and somewhat stressful day. I had been worrying about this and that and chastising myself for what I had not done yet; I was stuck in negative monkey-brain mode. Then the clarion call went up from my son: “Mama, I poop” and we were off to the changing table.
As I changed his diaper, I realized that my mind had emptied of all worrisome thoughts. I realized that I was completely tuned into the moment. I was noticing the messiness of the diaper, looking for any concerns in what he produced in the diaper or on his skin. I was noticing his beautiful smile, his cooing, and what he was trying to reach for and grab from the diaper bag. I was no longer worrying about what to make for dinner later that day, I was not caught up in existential worries about the state of the world or my progress on the ever-evolving to-do list of life. I was simply there, in the moment, with my son, doing only what I was doing and nothing else.
I chose to see this as a gift. His need for a diaper change put me right into a precise moment. This arguably unpleasant task of changing a diaper disaster was in fact giving me a gift of being in the here and now, it had brought me back into sharp focus within a moment. I felt grateful for the reframing and realization that something as mundane as a diaper change was an opportunity to center and to “be” exactly who and where I was.
Thinking About Source
Feeding is another non-negotiable. Like any aspect of parenting, feeding time could be viewed as a source of stress. Having negative feelings about feedings is understandable. There are bottles to clean, issues around breastfeeding, fussy eaters, and other attendant concerns. Feeding time, especially if a baby is exclusively breastfed, can be lonely.
For some parents, there is a real struggle to form emotional bonds with the infant, and these parents should not feel judged for that. Even in these tough moments, parents can find comfort in knowing that they are doing a good thing. They are feeding their child, and that is right action. Building on that foundation, feeding times can ideally be embraced by more caretakers as opportunities for deep connection, calm reflection, and meditation.
For the rest of my life, I will cherish the sweet quiet of my first son’s feeding times. His cozy, appreciative, uninhibited noises of suckling and sighing intermingled with an occasional hoot or giggle will be layered into the tissues of my heart forever. The safety we both felt in those feedings, the warm connection and peace, were such precious gifts. I could feel the energy flow from my body directly into his body.
Satisfying this basic and urgent need of sustenance was profoundly rewarding and rooted us together in a moment of his appreciation for me and my promises to him to always provide. For caretakers who don’t nurse, we all still know those sweet sounds of a baby enjoying a warm bottle, snuggling close and calmly filling up that little belly. That goodness and warmth can override any of the other difficulties around feeding if we are mindful about what we choose to tune into in that moment.
Honoring the responsibility of feeding ensures spaces in our morning, afternoon, and evening wherein, if we choose, we can employ some positive thinking strategies. We can sit with that little human and listen to them feed, think about their body getting nourished, and be still with it all, letting our energy connect to the baby, and to the moment.
As we feed them, we can consider the power of being the source of nourishment and energy for this tiny body. We can think about our goals for this little one’s health. We can get down to the roots of raising a little one, meaning:
What will I feed you with throughout your life?
What music do I want you to hear?
What books do I hope you explore?
What walks should we take and what sights should we see?
What sources will fill you up beyond this breastmilk or formula?
Feeding lets us think about our role as the source of guidance and that in turn can help us focus on the source of our strength, our core. What will aid us in sustaining the strength and the tenderness to raise this child? What is our source?
More pragmatically, feedings also provide built-in breaks in the day. An alternative to focusing on the headier questions of source and purpose during feeding times is to use the moment for meditation or other strategies to free your mind from overthinking.
Parents can work on various mindfulness and meditation techniques – focus on your breathing, focus on your heart, acknowledge and release heavy thoughts and worries, focus on the sounds of the baby’s mouth or breathing. Regardless of the length of each feeding, there are always many feedings throughout a given day. By creating meditation space within various feeding times, parents can find the gift of multiple meditations each day.
As my son ages and develops so quickly, I am deeply reflecting on his baby time and every stage he has already progressed through. I daydream about how this decision or stage will lead to the next. These moments also naturally invite and compel a parent to soak it in – notice the little one’s tiny fingers and how sweetly they fit into the bend of your hand, notice the smell of his sweaty nap time hair, notice her munching sounds as she works her way through her favorite snack.
The urge to fully experience and capture each moment is so pronounced during the early years of motherhood as you see that this time does indeed fly by. Parents know however, so viscerally, that there is no capturing possible within these fleeting moments. There is no permanence in who this baby is; they change so much even within one day and as they get older the changes increase in speed and variety. We are humble in the face of time itself as it so swiftly and beautifully brings our babes forward through their development. We are reminded in powerful ways every day just how slippery and ephemeral time is. This helps us cherish each moment all the more.
While I was working on this article, I asked a few of my close friends about their experiences with meditation or mindfulness in motherhood. All of these women had been working moms, and many first responses were “Meditate? Ha!”
However, after reflecting a bit more all of them offered additional responses; while they hadn’t perhaps sat in lotus position, listening to a guided meditation while incense burned, they had in fact had meditative experiences throughout their early years of motherhood. Most experiences were kinesthetic and included routines of jogging on their own or having dance sessions and taking hours-long walks with their little ones.
One sage friend said: “I guess walks have always been my mother or grandmother meditation, and I brought a sleeping baby with me when I could. I never had headphones in. It was always the ambient sounds of nature and the sleeping body of a child whose blood I shared.” (Jennifer Firer, 2020).
It was affirming to learn that each woman had her way of finding space within a day to recenter and to keep her creativity flowing and her connection to her power intact. I realized that it wasn’t mindfulness practice itself that had not happened for my friends, but rather a way of thinking about mindfulness and parenthood that made so many of them initially respond negatively about having had a mindfulness practice during early parenthood.
Many of us share a mental model of mindfulness comprised of quiet yoga studios or structured meditation practices. With that as our definition, it follows that most people see parenthood as counter to mindful living because few parents have the ability or desire to spend so much time and money on experiences that keep them away from their little ones. However, if we can bring mindfulness into the daily life of parenthood, that in turn can transform our experiences as mothers and caretakers.
If we can think of mindfulness as the practice of ordering your thinking, of sifting through monkey-brain thoughts and cleansing our mind of too much noise, of connecting with our own energy and the energy of those around us, of being in the moment, then we can see that parenting is a journey abundant with the most precious and joyous mindfulness opportunities.
If we can see even the smallest moments – the diaper changes, the afternoon feeding, the fleeting feelings of how fast they grow – as opportunities to connect and cherish the moment, then the worlds of mindfulness and parenthood can become more harmonized in our thinking and dialogue. If more of us can have these positive conversations about the mindful benefits of parenting, the symbiosis between the two worlds can become normalized and enjoyed within more and more families.
We need to work together to augment and adjust our language and our support for each other around our mental constructs of motherhood. I love my life and the paths I have taken to land where I have landed. Yet I often wonder how different my first pregnancy would have been, or the years leading up to motherhood overall, had I been the cultural recipient of a more exciting and affirming narrative about the deep power and beneficial aspects of motherhood.
What if I had always received the message that motherhood brings a mom back to source and in direct connection to what is essential?
What if I had always received the message that mindful living is enhanced as you enhance your life – it does not require a sequestered or pared-down existence to flourish?
What if I knew in my bones that I would be able to find a deeper mindfulness once I became a mama?
I now know that any mom can find her way to mindfulness in motherhood. This will become more of a reality once our common dialogue around motherhood includes as many empowering stories of the enriching experiences of motherhood as it does quips about mommy brain.